Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts (Vietnam)

HCMC Museum of Modern Art

HCMC Museum of Modern Art

On our third day in Ho Chi Minh City, we decided, for a change, to sample Vietnamese art and culture by visiting the HCMC Museum of Fine Arts, the major art museum of Ho Chi Minh City and the second largest in the country after the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi.

An antique wooden lift

An antique wooden lift

Originally the classic and elegant, mansion of the Chinese-born businessman Mr. Jean Baptiste Hua Bon Hoa (1845-1901), the wealthiest man of Saigon at the time (he owned the famous Majestic Hotel and Tu Du Hospital), was built between 1929 and 1934 as the Saigon headquarters of the Société Immobilière Hui Bon Hoa.  On September 5, 1987, the 3-storey building was reformed into a museum, as the result of a decision of the City’s People’s Committee.  However, it was not officially opened until 1991.

Modern Arts Exhibit

Modern Arts Exhibit

The museum houses contemporary Vietnamese art  works (much of it, unsurprisingly, focusing on resistance to colonial rulers) on sculpture, oil, silk painting and lacquer painting, as well as traditional styles including woodcut paintings in the Hàng TrốngĐông Hồ, and Kim Hoàng styles; Vietnamese ceramics; a collection of ancient Buddhist art and historical pieces dating back to the 4th century, including elegant Funan-era sculptures of Vishnu, the Buddha and other revered figures (carved in both wood and stone), and Cham art dating from the 7th to 14th century.

Uncle Ho with Children - Diep Minh Chau

Uncle Ho with Children – Diep Minh Chau

One room is devoted to a collection of totem-like funeral sculptures from the Hill Tribes of the Central Highlands. The museum focuses on collecting, keeping, preserving and displaying fine artworks typical of Vietnamese people, especially Ho Chi Minh City and the South.

Mother & Child - Nguyen Phu Cuong (1953)

Mother & Child – Nguyen Phu Cuong (1953)

Even before entering the museum, we already admired statuary scattered around the grounds. We entered a huge hall with beautiful, exuberantly tiled floor, some fine (albeit deteriorated) stained glass and one of Saigon’s oldest wooden lifts.  Though not airconditioned, the museum had airy corridors and breezy verandas. Hung from the walls is an impressive selection of art, including thoughtful pieces from the modern period.

Display of sketches and materials used by wartime artists in the field,

Display of sketches and materials used by wartime artists in the field,

It comprises three floors of exhibition space. The first floor features a changing exhibit of contemporary domestic and international art while the second floor exhibits both contemporary oil paintings, sketches, lacquerware  and sculptures of leading Vietnamese (Thái Hà, Quách Phong, Nguyễn Sáng, Hoàng Trầm, Tú Duyên, Nguyễn Thanh Châu, Trần Văn Lắm, Nguyễn Hải, Dũng Tiến, Phan Mai Trực, Hồ Hữu Thủ, Nguyễn Trung, Trịnh Cung, Đỗ Quang Em, Diệp Minh Châu and Nguyễn Gia Trí) and foreign artists of the last 50 years from its permanent collection.

The museum courtyard

The museum courtyard

The third floor displays an interesting collection of historic arts ranging from 7th century to early 20th century.  They include Cham kingdom and earlier civilizations such as Óc Eo archaeological site in Mekong Delta and 17th-20th century decorative Vietnamese furniture.

Statuary at the courtyard

Statuary at the courtyard

The central courtyard in the center of the building, accessed from the rear of the building, has more statuary scattered around the grounds.  We checked out a cluster of 3 small commercial galleries in the basement. One shop has a selection of lovely prints for sale (costing from around 80,000 VND) while Building No 2 hosts lesser known works and stages exhibitions. The contemporary Blue Space Contemporary Art Center, located near the entrance, is run by the museum.

Blue Space Contemporary Art Center

Blue Space Contemporary Art Center

The Fine Arts Museum, indispensable for those who are keen on Vietnam arts and culture, is not big and modern but its abundant collections more than make up for it. Conveniently located near the Ben Thanh Market, the massive but beautiful French villa that houses the museum, a combination of French and Chinese styles, is an attempt to meld elements of Art Deco with local decorative motifs and spatial principles.

Commercial galleries

Commercial galleries

Through its marble floors; elegant columns; wrought-iron work on its windows and balconies; Chinese-style roof tiles; and spacious, airy rooms, it brings about a typical colonial feeling. It is considered as a work of art itself by most people.

The author

The author

Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts: 97 A- Pho Duc Chinh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  Tel: +84 8 3829 4441. Website: www.baotangmythuattphcm.vn.  Admission: 10,000 VND (adult), 3,000 VND (child). Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 9 AM – 4:30 PM.

Reunification Palace (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

The Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace

From the St. Francis Xavier Church in Chinatown, we next moved on to the Reunification Palace, one of the most fascinating sights in Ho Chi Minh City. On February 23, 1868, the foundation for a residence was laid on this site for by Adm. Pierre de la Grandiere, the French governor-general of Cochinchina. It was completed in 1873. Gradually, it expanded to become Norodom Palace (Dinh Norodom).

The author, Grace, Cheska, Jandy and a sleeping Kyle at the balcony

The author, Grace, Cheska, Jandy and a sleeping Kyle at the balcony

When the French departed, the palace became home to the unpopular South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. On February 27, 1962, 2 pilots (Nguyễn Văn Cử and Phạm Phú Quốc) on two A-1 Skyraider (A-1D/AD-6 variant) aircraft of Diem’s own air force bombed the palace, almost destroying the entire left wing, in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him.

Sun canopies that evoke tall bamboo

Sun canopies that evoke tall bamboo

As it was almost impossible to restore the palace, Diệm ordered it demolished and commissioned a new residence to be built in its place. This time it had a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement. Diem did not get to see his dream house as he, together with his brother and chief adviser Ngô Đình Nhu, were killed by his own troops on November 2, 1963.

Main central stairway

Main central stairway

A grand corridor

A grand corridor

The newly completed building was inaugurated on October 31,1966 by General and later president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, the chairman of the National Leadership Committee and head of the military junta, and was named Independence Palace (Dinh Doc Lap). It served as Thiệu’s home and office.

Lobby with a Hong Kong-made (1973) circular carpet

Lobby with a Hong Kong-made (1973) circular carpet

The Presidential Office

The Presidential Office

On April 8, 1975, Nguyễn Thanh Trung, a pilot of the Vietnam Air Force and an undetected communist spy, flew an F-5E aircraft from Biên Hòa Air Base and bombed the palace, causing no significant damage. On April 21, 1975, prior to the Fall of Saigon, Thieu hastily fled the palace and went into exile.

After a day of bombardment, the North Vietnamese were ready to make their final push into Saigon. On April 30, 1975, 10:45 AM, a Russian-made  North Vietnamese Army T-54/55 (No. 843) tank of Tank Corps 203, 2nd Army, crashed through its wrought-iron gates, a dramatic scene recorded by Australian photo journalist Neil Davis and shown around the world. After crashing through the gates, a soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a Vietcong flag from the balcony at 11:30 AM.

In an ornate reception chamber, Gen. Dương Văn Minh, who had become head of the South Vietnamese state only 43 hours before, waited with his improvised cabinet. “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you,” Minh said to the Vietcong officer who entered the room. “There is no question of your transferring power,” replied the officer. “You cannot give up what you do not have.” At 3:30 PM, Minh broadcast over the radio, stating “I declare the Saigon government…completely dissolved at all levels.” The dissolution of the South Vietnamese government effectively ended the Vietnam War.

Designed by Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngô Viết Thụ, this outstanding example of typical, strikingly modern 1960s architecture was built on a block of 12 hectares bordering four streets: Nam Ky Khoi Nghia in the front (the main entrance is open to Le Duan Boulevard), Huyen Tran Cong Chua in the back, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai on the right and Nguyen Du on the left.  Its external sun canopies evoke the shape of tall bamboo.  Its spacious rooms open onto grand corridors grouped around a monumental central staircase.

Presidential Reception Room

Presidential Reception Room

Following the liberation of Saigon, the Palace became the headquarters of the Municipal Military Administrative Committee. In 1975 the building was renamed Truong Thong Nhat to commemorate the national reunification. Before 1975, access to the palace and some surrounding areas was prohibited to the public. Today, the palace has become a famous tourist attraction in HCMC, hosting, on average, about 700-1,000 tourists per day (2,500-3,000 on Sundays).

Vice-President's Reception Salon

Vice-President’s Reception Salon

The 5-storey, handsomely-designed building consists of 95 rooms and chambers, each decorated, according to its function, with the finest modern Vietnamese arts and crafts.  Merging classic 1960’s architecture with the principles of feng shui and Chinese calligraphy, the design of the building is said to represent the Chinese character Hung which means “the nation to be prosperous forever.” It features two exhibition rooms, a 33-room guesthouse, bomb shelter, Catholic chapel, helipad and numerous entertainment facilities.

Ambassadors Chamber

Ambassadors Chamber

The ground floor has various meeting rooms including a room with a boat-shaped table that was often used for conferences. In the back of the building are the president’s living quarters (check out the model boats, horse tails and severed elephants’ feet). Upstairs are a grand set of reception rooms used for meeting foreign and national dignitaries.  A room called Phu Dau Rong was where Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu received foreign delegations. The upstairs office with maps was actually just a decoy.

The private apartments

The private apartments

On the third floor is a shagadelic card-playing room , complete with a round leather banquette, a barrel-shaped bar, hubcap light fixtures and groovy three-legged chairs set around a flared-legged card table. There’s also a cinema and a rooftop nightclub, complete with a terrace with a heliport where a helicopter similar to that used for the evacuation of Pres. Thieu before the Viet Cong arrived is parked. From the balcony is a nice view of the surrounding park. The fourth floor, used for dancing, even had a casino.

First Lady's Reception Room

First Lady’s Reception Room

The most interesting part of this 4,500 sq. m. building is probably the eerie basement’s extensive command center which contains a network of tunnels, a telecommunication center, mobile radio section, a spare radio station, the President’s bedroom, a large kitchen, a shooting range and a war room, full of ancient 1960s and 1970s phones, radios and office equipment.

The Game Room

The Game Room

Cinema

Cinema

Also on display are a Mercedes Benz 200 W110 car and a XE Jeep M151A2, a gallery with historical pictures on the walls (including many photos of US soldiers and personnel making a mad dash for the departing helicopters during the Fall of Saigon) and the best map of Vietnam you’ll ever see pasted on the wall, all supposedly left exactly as it was found when the North took over.  It made me feel like I was on the set of “MASH.”

National Security Council Chamber

National Security Council Chamber

President's bunker bedroom

President’s bunker bedroom

Outside, on the parade ground, is a F-5E fighter plane (similar to the one which bombed the palace on April 8, 1975) as well as a Russian-made T-54/55 tank (Tank 843) and a Chinese-made T-59 tank (Tank 390), both identical to the armored vehicles that broke through the palace gates.

Mercedes Benz 200 W110

Mercedes Benz 200 W110

XE Jeep M151A2

XE Jeep M151A2

The Reunification Palace may not be the most opulent of palaces but it is interesting to see because of its place in history. The very nice grounds, surrounded by immense lawns and high trees in its gardens, provide an airy and open atmosphere, a peaceful respite in the heart of a bustling area.

Target practice range

Target practice range

Photo gallery at the bunker

Photo gallery at the bunker

The eerie feeling of the empty hallways and the smell of damp air of the basement’s dark and forbidden, maze-like bunker system truly has a surrealistic quality to it. A time warp, it’s as if time has stood still since morning of April 30, 1975 (except for new gates).

Heliport.  The circle marks the spot where Nguyễn Thanh Trung bombs fell

Heliport. The circle marks the spot where Nguyễn Thanh Trung’s two bombs fell

1960s communication equipment at the bunker

1960s communication equipment at the bunker

Still, it is well worth the time to visit this section of the Reunification Palace, the real heart of it all. The cracked old furniture, fixtures and fittings are very kitsch and don’t feel out of place on the set of a 1960’s James Bond movie or even an Austin Powers film. This fantastic place, one of the best museums I have ever seen in my life, has to be visited for the history and architecture alone. A must see in HCMC.

Kyle in front of a F-5E Freedom Fighter

Kyle in front of a F-5E Freedom Fighter

T-54 Tank (Tank 843) and T-59 Tank (Tank 390)

T-54 Tank (Tank 843) and T-59 Tank (Tank 390)

Reunification Palace: 135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam.  Tel:+84 8 3822 3652. Open daily (so long as official receptions or meetings aren’t taking place), 7:30AM to 11:30AM and 1 to 5PM. Admission: adult (VND15,000) and children (VND2,000). English- and French-speaking guides are on duty during opening hours (prices are ‘up to you’). Some rooms in the palace are available for hire for meeting and banquets.

Church of St. Francis Xavier (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

St. Francis Xavier Church

St. Francis Xavier Church

From Thien Hau Pagoda, we again boarded our van and proceeded to Church of St. Francis Xavier, one of the most popular attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. Located at the center of Cho Lon (Chinatown), this pleasing light-caramel and white painted church, built for the Chinese in Saigon, exudes a sleepy, tropical feel.

The spacious church compound

The spacious church compound

In 1898, Fr. François Xavier Tam Assou (1855–January 24,1934), a Chinese-born vicar apostolic (delegate of the pope) of Saigon, was sent to Cho Lon by the local bishop to take care of the city’s Chinese Christians. His first act was to build a church for them and construction of the church began on December 3, 1900, the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, when Lucien-Émile Mossard (October 24, 1851-February 12, 1920), Bishop of Saigon, placed the first stone for the church.

Tomb of Fr. François Xavier Tam Assou

Tomb of Fr. François Xavier Tam Assou

On January 10, 1902, the church was inaugurated and dedicated to St. Francis Xavier (whom Fr. Tam was named after). After that, Fr. Tam also built a school, a kindergarten, a boarding house, and houses for rent in the church. In 1990, the church steeple and the sanctuary were refurbished.

Plaque commemorating Vietnamese martyrs

Plaque commemorating Vietnamese martyrs

However, any discussion of this church’s history needs to include its darker side. On November 2, 1963, then South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were seized inside this church.  They sought refuge here in a doomed effort to escape a coup attempt after fleeing the Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Palace) through a secret tunnel network.

When their efforts to contact loyal military officers (of whom there were almost none) failed, Diem and Nhu agreed to surrender unconditionally and revealed where they were hiding. Another version states that an informant recognized the brothers as they walked across the church’s courtyard on the morning of the 2nd. The coup leaders sent an M-113 armored personnel carrier to the church and, around 10 AM, the two were taken into custody while they were praying inside.

The plan was to transport them to the Vietnamese Joint General Staff Headquarters, then exile the brothers to a new country, far from Southeast Asia. However, before the vehicle reached central Saigon, the zealous and angry soldiers had killed Diem and Nhu by shooting them at point-blank range and then repeatedly stabbing their bodies. Diem was subsequently buried in an unmarked grave not far from the US ambassador’s residence. What followed was a political scandal, an attempted cover-up and an international investigation that ended with no one being prosecuted for the killings.

When news of the deaths was broadcast on radio, Saigon exploded with jubilation. Portraits of the two were torn up and political prisoners, many of whom had been tortured, were set free. The city’s nightclubs, which had closed because of the Ngos’ conservative Catholic beliefs, were reopened. Three weeks later the US president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. As his administration had supported the coup against Diem, some conspiracy theorists speculated that Diem’s family orchestrated Kennedy’s death in retaliation.

The church compound (which can be accessed even when the church is closed), covering a large area, offered a good space for us to stroll around. An interesting plaque here commemorates Vietnamese  martyrs. This Gothic-style church is somewhat unique in that it’s decorated with horizontal lacquer boards and wood panels with inscriptions much like the surrounding Chinese style temples.  Pretty red lanterns adorn the church walls.

Statue of Fr. François Xavier Tam Assou at the church steeple

Statue of Fr. François Xavier Tam Assou at the church steeple

The centrally located, 38 m. high tower has a peculiar statue of Fr. Tam and his tomb is located at the entrance wall of the church. The church is often called Cha Tam (Father Tam) Church (Nha Tho Cha Tam).

The rib vaulted church interior

The rib vaulted church interior

The mint green and white interior, with its rib vault ceiling, is decorated with images of the Stations of the Cross, while holy water is dispensed from huge clam shells. A pew in the church is marked with a small plaque identifying the spot where President Ngo Dinh Diem was seized.  Today, the church, one of Saigon’s more active, is far removed from the brutality of yesteryears and has a very active congregation of 3,000 ethnic Vietnamese and 2,000 ethnic Chinese parishioners.

L-R: Jandy, the author, Kyle, Cheska and Grace

L-R: Jandy, the author, Kyle, Cheska and Grace

Cha Tam Church: 25 Học Lạc St.,  District 5, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam. Tel: +84 8 3856 0274. Open daily, 7 AM – 12 noon, 2 – 6 PM and 7 – 9 PM. Masses, in both Vietnamese and Chinese (Mandarin), are held daily.

Thien Hau Pagoda (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Thien Hau Pagoda

Thien Hau Pagoda

After our lunch at Pho 24, we continued with the afternoon leg of our day-long city tour, first dropping by the beautiful Thien Hau Temple, one of Cholon district’s (Chinatown) most popular and most active  pagodas, located right on very busy Nguyen Trai Street.  The temple, also known as Chua Ba Thien Hau (literally means “Pagoda of the Lady of the Sea”), was originally built in 1760 (the oldest Chinese temple in Saigon) by the Cantonese Congregation as an expression of gratitude by Chinese immigrants coming from Tue Thanh Province, Quang Dong, for Thien Hau’s protection during their initial trip to Saigon by sea.

Thien Hau Pagoda (2)

All the materials used for its construction were brought from China. The pagoda was then continuously restored in 1800, 1842, 1882, 1890 and 1916.  On July 1, 1993, the pagoda was recognized as a National Architectural and Art Monument.

Wooden model of a Chinese theater

Wooden model of a Chinese theater above the entrance

The deity Thien Hau, , the goddess of the sea and protector of sailors and fishermen (also known as Tuc Goi La Ba and Mazu, is a traditional Chinese goddess who is not specifically Buddhist or Taoist. Revered by seafaring cultures, she has the ability to travel over the sea, on a mat or the clouds, to wherever she pleases, to protect or rescue stranded seafarers on the high seas. This very popular goddess’ temples are included on so many tour-group itineraries in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The inner courtyard

The inner courtyard

The pagoda houses over 400 meticulously crafted antiques including seven god statues, six stone statues, nine stone steles, two small bells, four copper censers produced in 1886, one stone censor, 10 horizontal lacquered boards, 23 parallel sentences and others.

A fire pit for burning money, paper clothes or gifts to send to ancestors

A fire pit for burning money, paper clothes or gifts to send to ancestors

Large incense brazier

Large incense brazier

We entered the temple by entering an iron gate and then crossing a small, partially covered courtyard.  Though there are guardians on each side of the entrance, it is said that the real protectors of the pagoda are the two land turtles that live there. Lanterns and wooden models of Chinese theaters hang over the entrance.

Thien Hau Pagoda (41)

Thien Hau Pagoda (42)

The exposed portions of the courtyard contain large braziers, pots where burning joss sticks are placed. Near the braziers are two miniature wooden structures in which a small figure of Thien Hau is paraded, on the 23rd day of the third lunar month, around the nearby streets. To one side of the temple is an alcove containing a pool of fish, among which, is a giant.

Porcelain dioramas at the roof

Porcelain dioramas at the roof

Above the roof line of the interior courtyard are remarkable friezes decorated with small, delicately fashioned porcelain ceramic figurines manufactured by two famous pottery kilns (Buu Nguyen and Dong Hoa)) in 1908, all elaborate dioramas that express whimsical themes from Chinese religion, customs (such as “fighting in an arena”, “kowtow before ancestor’s altar”, etc.) and legends. In one scene, actors depict a duel on horseback between the revered, halberd-wielding general Guan Yu (of the epic novel Three Kingdoms) and another fighter.

Thien Hau Pagoda (88)

Thien Hau Pagoda (90)

Another scene depicts the three Taoist sages representing longevity, fecundity and prosperity. They also show scenes from a 19th-century Chinese city, including such colorful figures as actors, demons,  dragons, turtles, Persian and European sailors and traders, musicians playing instruments, couples conversing on balconies, wise old men in earnest discussion and even a white crane, seated on a rocky ledge, loping past people.

Altar of Thien Hau

Altar of Thien Hau

The three statues of the goddess Thiên Hậu

The three statues of the goddess Thiên Hậu

At the end of this gorgeous pagoda’s courtyard is the altar dominated by the three statues of the goddess Thiên Hậu on the main dais. The statues, one behind the other, have bronze faces and multi-colored clothes and crowns. Incense burners are all about, filling the open area with swirling pale white smoke and the pungent aroma of burning incense.  The three figures of Thien Hau are all flanked by two servants or guardians, one can see very far while the other can hear very well.

Thien Hau Pagoda (20)

Of special note is a scale model boat, to the right, that commemorates the first Chinese arriving from Canton. On the far right is the goddess Long Mau (protector of mothers and infants) while to the left of the dais is Thien Hau’s bed.

Thien Hau Pagoda (70)

The pagoda also has alcoves dedicated to other Chinese gods such as the Money God (it is said that good luck in doing business will be granted after some money is offered to him), Meh Sanh (the goddess of fertility) and the Mermaid. Several women were busy lighting bundles of incense sticks and then praying within the alcove at the rear of the temple.

Thien Hau Pagoda (65)

While the Thien Hau Pagoda isn’t the largest or most elaborate in the city, it is most popular, with worshippers from the local Chinese community and visitors, for its dozens of large amazing coils of incense suspended from the ceiling rafters over the main worship area, in front of the altar of Thien Hau. Some are quite large, with a diameter of more than a meter, and can burn for upwards of a month.

Conical incense coils with red tags

Conical incense coils with red tags

IncensIncense urnse urns

All coils are attached with a red tag with prayers that get sent when the incense burns out at the top of the coil. For luck, good health and good business fortune, the buyer’s name is written on the prayer tag after an incense coil or bundle is purchased. With a small donation to the pagoda, you can have your own coil lit and hung. Several people inside and outside sell incense, with 20,000 VND enough to purchase a large quantity.

Thien Hau Pagoda (25)

Thien Hau Pagoda (26)

Thien Hau Pagoda, probably the finest largest and most popular pagoda in Saigon and easily one of the most favorite tourist destinations in the city,is a valuable work of history, architecture and sculpture as well as an important religious site of the city’s Chinese-Vietnamese community. It truly has an atmosphere of otherworldly reverence owing to the smoking coils of swirling incense hanging from the room and majestic interior and furnishings. When visiting, be sure to keep an eye out for (bring binoculars) the intricate porcelain dioramas that decorate the beautiful roof.

L-R: our guide, Kyle, Grace and Cheska

L-R: our guide, Kyle, Grace and Cheska

Thien Hau Pagoda (93)

Thien Hau Pagoda: 710 Nguyen Trai St., District 5, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  Open daily, 8 AM -4:30 PM. Admission is free but, if you wish to give something towards the building’s preservation, there is a donation box inside. It will cost 5,000 VND to park.

Jade Emperor Pagoda (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

From the War Remnants Museum, we again boarded our van for the Jade Emperor Pagoda, one of the more colorful temples in HCMC, hidden in a small street, between high buildings. The facade of the Jade Emperor Pagoda is made with brick painted in pink and had exquisite and elaborate woodcarvings on tablets decorated with gilded Chinese characters. Its very striking and unique YinYang-shaped roofs are also works of art, with characteristic sharp peaks and sprinkled with numerous sculptures of dragons (the symbol of the divine) and completed with structures of red wood bound with elaborate, green-colored ceramic tiles.

The pagoda gate

The pagoda gate

Built from 1892 to 1909 by the Cantonese (Quang Dong) Congregation from Guanzhou, this spectacularly atmospheric pagoda (Vietnamese: Chùa Ngọc Hoàng; official name: Ngọc Hoàng Điện) is dedicated to various Taoist and Buddhist gods, especially to the supreme Taoist god Ngoc Hoang (the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven), the emperor monitoring entry through the gates of heaven by deciding who will enter and who will be refused. Originally known as Pagoda Ngoc Hoang, this pagoda was renamed in 1984 as Pagoda Phuoc Hai Tu (“Luck Sea Temple”), a new Chinese name which it still retains to this day.

A small shrine with a safe

A small shrine with a steel safe

We entered the temple via Phuoc Hai Tu, the only door to the temple, passing under a red porch into a courtyard where we were greeted by a huge banyan tree, after which we passed a small shrine with a steel safe (a reminder that, though admission is free, donations are accepted). Within the courtyard are benches for sitting.

The incinerator

The incinerator

To the left of the entrance to the Jade Emperor pagoda is the so-called incinerator, a chimney-shaped structure where believers burn offerings of paper. According to religious beliefs, smoke from the burning paper reaches the ancestors and deceased in heaven.

The pagoda courtyard

Grace, Cheska and our guide at the pagoda courtyard

Jade Emperor Pagoda (41)

Jade Emperor Pagoda (42)

To the right of the entrance is the shelter for hundreds of turtles (the temple is also called thePagoda of Turtles” or “Tortoise Pagoda”). Turtles, in Asian culture, represent longevity.  In Vietnam, they are also considered as a symbol of fortune and good luck.

Turtle pond

Turtle pond

Kyle's close encounter with a land turtle

Kyle’s close encounter with a land turtle

In decorating the pagoda, the Cantonese community was inspired by many Buddhist legends and myths. The pagoda is filled with towering and really impressive statues, made with wood and reinforced papier mâché, of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes which represent characters from both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions.

The Jade Emperor

The Jade Emperor

Undoubtedly, the best of the Jade Emperor Pagoda is in the main building. Beside impressive carved wooden doors with human and divine figures, to the right, is Mon Quan, the God of the Gate while opposite him is Tho Than (Tho Dia), the God of the Land.

Guardian of the door of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Mon Quan, the God of the Gate

Jade Emperor Pagoda (47)

Against the wall are two 4 m. high, especially fierce and menacing figures of demons flanking the main sanctuary, both guardians of the gate. On the right (as you face the altar) is the statue the general who defeated the Green Dragon (depicted underfoot), while on the left is the general who defeated the White Tiger (which is also being stepped on).

The general who defeated the Green Dragon

The general who defeated the Green Dragon

Straight on is an altar on which are Phat Mau Chuan De, who gave birth to the five Buddhas of the cardinal directions; Dia Tang Vueng Bo Tat (Ksitigartha), the King of Hell; the Di Lac Buddha (Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future; Quan The Am Bo Tat; and a portrait of the Thich Ca Buddha. Behind the altar, is the Duoc Su Buddha, or Nhu Lai Buddha.

The altar of  Phat Mau Chuan De

The altar of Phat Mau Chuan De

The air inside is thick with the pungent smell of incense smoke from burning joss sticks. Presiding over the main sanctuary is the Jade Emperor Ngoc Hoang (easily recognizable by its large mustache typical of Cantonese culture), draped in luxurious robes, flanked by his guardians, the Four “Big Diamonds” (Tu Dai Kim Cuon). They are so named because they are said to be as hard as diamonds.

Four Big Diamonds (Tu Dai Kim Cuong)

Four Big Diamonds (Tu Dai Kim Cuong)

In front of the Jade Emperor, on the left, is Bac Dau, the Taoist God of the Northern Polar Star and Longevity, flanked by his two guardians; and, on the right, is Nam Tao, the Taoist God of the Southern Polar Star and Happiness, also flanked by two guardians. To the right of the Jade Emperor is 18-armed Phat Mau Chuan De.

Jade Emperor Pagoda (19)

On the wall to her right is Dai Minh Vuong Quang,reincarnated as Sakyamuni. Below are the Tien Nhan (the ‘God Persons’). To the left of the Jade Emperor sits Ong Bac De, one of his reincarnations. On the wall, to the left of Ong Bac De, is Thien Loi, the God of Lightning, who slays evil people. Below him are the military commanders of Ong Bac De and Thien Loi’s guardians. At the top of the two carved pillars that separate the three alcoves are the Goddess of the Moon and God of the Sun.

Guardian demon of the Hall of the Ten Hells

Guardian demon of the Hall of the Ten Hells

We then went out a door, on the left-hand side of the Jade Emperor’s chamber, to another room. To the right is a semi-enclosed area presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, while to the left is his life-sized effigy of red horse. Closest to Thanh Hoang are Am Quan, the God of Yin, and Duong Quan, the God of Yang. The other four figures, the Thuong Thien Phat Ac, are gods who dispense punishments for evil acts and rewards for good deeds.

Hall of the Ten Hells

Hall of the Ten Hells

Thanh Hoang faces in the direction of the Hall of the Ten Hells, usually filled with the smoke of incense sticks as well as multitude of candles, fruit offerings and lucky money. Ten interesting and magnificently carved wooden panels, lining the walls on the sides of the room, represent the 1,000 torments or storms awaiting evil people in each of the Ten Regions of Hell.  Each panel is topped with a representation of a King of Hell perusing a book that details the very evil acts perpetuated by the dead. This depiction of the horrors awaiting the ungodly is the equivalent of “Judgment Day” in Chinese mythology.

Quan Am Thi Kinh on a lotus blossom holding her “son.”

Quan Am Thi Kinh on a lotus blossom holding her “son.”

On the wall opposite Thanh Hoang is a wood panel depicting Quan Am Thi Kinh on a lotus blossom holding her “son.” To her left is her protector Long Nu while to her right is her guardian spirit Thien Tai. To the right of the panel of Quan Am Thi Kinh is a panel depicting Dia Tang Vuong Bo Tat, the King of Hell.

Kim Hoa Thanh Mau

Kim Hoa Thanh Mau

Facing the Chief of Hell, on the other side of the wall, is a fascinating little room with ceramic figures of 12 women wearing colorful clothes, overrun with many babies and sitting in two rows of six. They are presided over by Kim Hoa Thanh Mau, the Chief of All Women and the protector of all mothers and children. Each figurine exemplifies a particular human characteristic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug), and also represents a year in the 12-year Chinese astrological calendar. Childless Vietnamese couples often visit this small chapel to pray to be granted a child. Off to the right of the main chamber, stairs lead to a second floor sanctuary and balcony.

Figurines of 6 women in a row with babies

Figurines of 6 women in a row with babies

The rather interesting Jade Emperor Pagoda, a lovely and quiet place of worship, is a gentle and exotic little spot full of character. I liked looking at all these rather nasty and mean statues (they may scare very young children!) but also liked seeing the young and old local worshippers who came to pray, make offerings and burn incense. Set within a calm leafy courtyard with a rare spiritual glow, this island of tranquility in the sea of frenetic activity that is HCMC is definitely worth a look.

A pagoda worshipper

A pagoda worshiper

Jade Emperor Pagoda: 73 Mai Thi Luu Street, District 1Ho Chi Minh CityVietnam. Tel: +84 8 3820 3102.  It is open daily, 6 AM – 6 PM.

How to Get There: City buses 36 And 54 stop in the vicinity of the pagoda. Bus 36 leaves from the Ben Thanh bus station (just opposite Ben Thanh Market) and stops along Tran Quang Khai Street while bus 54 departs from the Mien Dong bus station and stops closest to the pagoda along Vo Thi Sau Street.

War Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

We departed Ben Thanh Market in our van during a driving rain and it was still raining when we arrived at the War Remnants Museum (Bo tàng Chng tích chiến tranh), perhaps the most famous and popular museum in the city.

Museum atrium

Museum atrium

The museum, opened to the public on September 4, 1975, attracts approximately half a million visitors every year, about two-thirds of them foreigners.  Previously called the Museum of American War Crimes, the name was altered in 1995 so as not to cause offence to American visitors following the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States and end of the US embargo the year before.

Museum lobby exhibit

Museum lobby exhibit

Comprising a series of themed rooms in several buildings (most in the former austere, concrete 3-storey United States Information Agency building), it primarily contains exhibits relating to the horrific American War (known in the U.S.A. as the Vietnam War), one of the bloodiest wars ever, also known as the second Indochina War, but also includes many exhibits relating to the first Indochina War involving the Vietnamese’  former French colonial masters.

The World People in support of Vietnam's Resistance

The World People in support of Vietnam’s Resistance

The 8 main permanent exhibits and various other special collections are – “International Support for Vietnam in its Resistance” in the ground floor; “Agent Orange Aftermath in the U.S. Aggressive War in Vietnam” and “Aggression War Crimes” at the second floor; and “Historical Truths”, “Requiem,” the “War and Peace Pavilion” and “Agent Orange in the War” at the third floor.  In another building is the “Imprisonment System” (shows the torture methods used in detention camps). Captions are in Vietnamese, English and Japanese.

Agent Orange Aftermath in the US Aggressive War in Vietnam

Agent Orange Aftermath in the US Aggressive War in Vietnam

This is also possibly one of the few museums in the world that allows you to take photos of the exhibits inside and outside.  These exhibits took us a few hours to view and I concentrated more on the captions than a lot of the actual pictures. The copies of newspaper clippings are interesting.

Agent Orange in the Vietnam War Pavilion

Agent Orange in the Vietnam War Pavilion

The “International Support for Vietnam in its Resistance Pavilion” is dedicated to the Vietnam peace movements all over the world, is devoted to a collection of posters and photographs showing international opposition (mostly communist countries such as Cuba, People’s Republic of China, the then Soviet Union, North Korea and prominent Western communist leaders) to the war as well as many old posters from the 1970’s American peace movement proclaiming “Stop the War.”  A powerful exhibit here is the bunch of medals given by U.S. Sgt. William Brown to the Vietnamese people with an apology saying ‘To the people of an united Vietnam, I was wrong, I am sorry.”

Medals given by U.S. Sgt. William Brown to the Vietnamese people

Medals given by U.S. Sgt. William Brown to the Vietnamese people

The “Agent Orange Aftermath in the U.S. Aggressive War in Vietnam Pavilion” covers the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays. Prominent displays here include pictures of hideously deformed babies and three pickling jars of preserved human fetuses allegedly deformed by exposure to Agent Orange. They also have a video screening showing its effects on the Americans using chemical weapons during the war as well as highlight how the chemicals still affect the Vietnamese, even today.

Preserved human fetuses allegedly deformed by exposure to Agent Orange

Preserved human fetuses allegedly deformed by exposure to Agent Orange

The “Aggression War Crimes Pavilion,” a room at the second floor heavily dosed with anti-American propaganda, is a distressing compendium of the horrors of war that shows the mistreatment of civilians during the war through the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs and war atrocities such as the infamous My Lai massacre.   Here, we had the rare chance to see some of the experimental weapons used in the war which were, at one time, military secrets, such as the fléchette, an artillery shell filled with thousands of tiny darts.

Fragment of the Wreckage of a B-52 Plane

Fragment of the Wreckage of a B-52 Plane

The “Historical Truths Pavilion,” devoted to the causes, origins and processes of aggressive wars, contains photographs, propaganda, news clippings, and signboards geared toward showing the wrongdoings of the U.S. government in the 1960s and 1970s.

Historical Truths

Historical Truths

The “War and Peace Pavilion” has a collection of colorful paintings submitted by schoolchildren from across Vietnam in response to a contest for pictures on the themes of war and peace and the healing of the wounds of war, is the most cheerful exhibit in the building.  Some pictures are sad, others happy, but it does give you a sense of hope for the future. This somewhat upbeat and really uplifiting display provides some respite from the grizzly museum displays on the horrors of war. Children and adults alike can also draw on the free paper and pastels given out specifically to relieve stress.

Vietnam - War and Peace

Vietnam – War and Peace

The “Agent Orange in the War Pavilion” highlights America’s decision to use chemical weapons, giving emphasis to chemical weapon called “Agent Orange.” Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds were contained in 75 million liters of toxic chemicals which  were dumped across the country including 44 million liters of the defoliant spray Agent Orange.

Requiem

Requiem

The excellent “Requiem Pavilion” houses a powerful and striking collection of assorted iconic photographs (some Pulitzer Prize-winning) and photo montages taken by 134 frontline journalists and photographers of 11 nationalities, on both sides, who were killed during the course of the conflict and compiled by legendary war photographer Tim Page.

Ckheska and Kyle at Requiem Exhibit

Ckheska and Kyle at Requiem Exhibit

This moving tribute includes works by Larry Burrows and Life Magazine’s Robert Capa who died on May 25,1954 stepping on a land mine. Pictures and short biographies of the photographers are by their featured photos.

Life Magazine cover photo taken by photographer Larry Burrows near Khe Sanh

Life Magazine cover photo taken by photographer Larry Burrows near Khe Sanh

This incredible collection of black and white photos (in some cases, very graphic that will distress viewers) from the American conflict is heart-wrenching and shows the deep suffering endured by the Vietnamese during the war.  Most photographs are captioned with “His/her last photograph” or “The last sighting of them as they set off for a VC checkpoint.” The most moving, however, was “A chaplain reading their last rites.”

June 8, 1972 photo of napalm girl taken by Huynh Cong Ut

June 8, 1972 photo of napalm girl taken by Huynh Cong Ut

A photo that caught my attention was that of a mother fleeing away from her enemies with her children. Another one that struck me was the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Huynh Cong Ut of a girl fleeing from the scene, being injured by the napalm bomb.

The Outdoor Exhibit

The Outdoor Exhibit

The rain had stopped and the sun was already shining when we finished our tour of the indoor exhibits, allowing us the opportunity to observe, up close, impressive state-of-the-art period military equipment placed within a now enlarged walled yard. The military equipment includes a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, a BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” bomb, M48 Patton tank, a renovated Douglas A-1 Skyraider attack bomber, an F-5A fighter and an A-37 Dragonfly attack bomber.

Defused ordnance

Defused ordnance

The last two are captured former South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) aircraft. Stored in the corner of the yard  are a ghoulish collection of unexploded ordnance , with their charges and/or fuses removed. When they called this place the War Remnants Museum, they weren’t joking.

A-1 Skyraider

A-1 Skyraider

A-37 Fighter Bomber

A-37 Fighter Bomber

One corner of the grounds is devoted to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on the infamous prison islands of Phu Quoc and Con Son near the Mekong Delta. Displays include the guillotine (that most iconic of French punishment devices) pictures, torture tools, and a grisly mock-up of the notoriously gruesome and inhumane “tiger cages” (with eerie wax models of prisoners sitting inside) used by the South Vietnamese government to house captured regular NVA prisoners-of-war, NLF (Vietcong) guerillas and political prisoners. The latter measures 2.7 m. x 1.5 m. x 3 m. and between 5 to14 prisoners were kept in each cage during the hot season, while only one or two were kept during the winter season. 

The Imprisonment System

The Imprisonment System

The famous guillotine, brought to Vietnam by the French in 1911, was used in a jail along Ly Tu Trong Street. During the Vietnam War, it was transported to all of the provinces to decapitate Vietnamese patriots. Mr Hoang Le Kha, member of the Provincial Committee of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party in Tay Ninh province, was the last man executed in 1960.

The guillotine

The guillotine

A visit to the War Remnants Museum is a quite sobering experience, especially for people like me where war seemed so far away, making me value the peace that we have now. They make no attempt to sugar-coat what they have to say here – man’s inhumanity to man. This humbling and sorrowful tribute to the thousands of men, woman, and children that suffered death and injury was successful in driving home the fact that wars are brutal and that innocent civilians are the biggest losers. Their pains deserve to be remembered.

Mock up of a tiger cage

Mock up of a tiger cage

It’s certainly not a fun place to go to but an eye opener all the same.  Much of what is on display isn’t easy to stomach, but that’s the point. Nevertheless, I would perhaps think twice about bringing children here.  The prison cells can be especially scary for the little ones.   Americans will probably say that it is extremely biased as its displays do tell the story from an anti-American perspective (not knowing that apparently 95% of the material came from the US archives) and it might be true. However, this powerful and politically charged testimony of the Vietnamese side constantly and subconsciously reminds us of the Winston Churchill’s idiom that “History is written by the victors.”

Jandy beside a CH-47 Chinook

Jandy beside a CH-47 Chinook

Disturbing, disgusting and tragic, the grisly photos of decapitated bodies and people begging for their lives, solemn, grim reminders of the cruelty of war, will open your eyes and churn your stomach.  Still, I was still very glad that I went there.  Their exhibits are compulsory viewing for all politicians worldwide. The museum gets busy in late afternoon as tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels (another good view of the Vietnam War),finish there. Avoid the crowds by going earlier in the day.

The author beside an M-48 A3 Tank

The author beside an M-48 A3 Tank

War Remnants Museum: 28 Võ Văn Tần, District 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam.  Tel: (84-4) 39302112 and (84-8) 39306325.  E-mail: warrmhcm@gmail.com.  Website: www.warremnantsmuseum.com.  Admission: 15,000 VND.  Children below 12 years old are free and discounts are offered for some categories of people. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 7.30 AM- 12 noon & 1:30-5 PM. Last admission is 4:30 PM.

How to Get Thereif you are not within walking distance, there are different buses that go past the museum, . Bus Route No. 14: BX Eastern – 3/2 – BX West. Bus Route No. 28: Ben Thanh Market Cho Xuan Thoi Thuong Bus Route No. 06: Cholon BX – University of Agriculture and Forestry

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater

Upon our arrival at the Elios Hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao area, I checked out pamphlets and advertisements for various tourist activities in the city. Among the pamphlets is one for the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, the pre-eminent water puppet theater in Ho Chi Minh City, which outlandishly claims that you “haven’t really been to Vietnam until you’ve seen a water puppet show.” This 50-minute long show features marionette puppets in water.

The theater seating area

The theater seating area

The exact time when water puppetry (múa ri nước), began in Vietnam is not known.  However, the oldest record mentioning water puppetry is found on an inscription on a stone stele called Sùng Thiện Diên Linh, dating from 1121, which was found in Đọi Sơn Pagoda, Duy Tiên District, Hà Nam Province, about 50 kms. from Hanoi. It eulogized the merits of King Ly Nhan Tong and describes a scene: “A golden tortoise, with three mountains on its shell, was seen on the rippling surface of the water. It showed both its carapace and four legs… the cavern’s entrance opened and fairies in the play appeared…Flocks of precious birds and herds of animals sang and danced…”

The water stage

The water stage

From the 11th to 14th centuries, after a period of rapid development, the art of water puppetry escaped the confines of the royal palaces of the Le and Nguyen dynasties and began showing up at village festivals and ceremonies in the Red River Delta, thus jump-starting the development of the country’s traditional stage arts. This art form, unique to Northern Vietnam, was first displayed in Hanoi in 1958 and, in 1973, the first state-run puppetry troop was established to serve the public audience.  In 1984, as a result of normalized relations with the West, Vietnamese water puppetry was introduced to the world stage for the first time (in France).

Waiting for the show to start

Waiting for the show to start

During the early 1990s, the country’s three foremost companies, the National Puppet Theatre (Nhà hát Múa ri Trung Ương), the municipal Thăng Long Puppet Company (Nhà hát Múa ri Thăng Long) of Hanoi and the Hồ Chí Minh City Puppet Company (Đoàn Ngh thut Múa ri Thành Ph H Chí Minh) gained increased international attention. Today, the main venues in Vietnam are the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi and the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater in Saigon.

Musicians and singers on the left

Musicians and singers on the left

Musicians and singers on the right

Musicians and singers on the right

After a short rest at our hotel and lunch at a nearby noodle house, Grace and I checked out a nearby travel agency where we booked ourselves for the last 7:45 PM show (other show times are 5 PM and 6:30 PM).  The regular admission per person at the ticket booth is US$7.50 and since the theater hosts three shows a day, obtaining tickets is not difficult. However, to facilitate things we paid the travel agent US$9.00 per person which included our taxi fare going there.

Uncle Teu

Uncle Teu – the master of ceremonies

We arrived at the theater, which is just a short distance from the Reunification Palace in the Labour Cultural House, half an hour before the start of the show.  The red velvet-covered auditorium seats around 200 visitors but, though we weren’t in the first few rows (which is definitely a splash zone), we were seated at the back rows which was quite far from the stage. Luckily, the theater wasn’t fully booked that night and, minutes before the start of the show, we were allowed to transfer to the middle row.

Water Puppet Show (19)

The show, with no intermission, was performed entirely in Vietnamese.  It is about the ancient origins of Vietnam and its rural upbringings, with a splash of the mythical goddesses, dragons and talking fish that go along with the traditional stories.

Water Puppet Show (132)

The orchestra of this modern theater consisted of professional musicians and singers, sitting in their traditional au dais, are set off to the left and right sides of the stage. They play traditional musical instruments like drums, clarinets, cymbals, Chinese guitars, bamboo flutes, zithers, two-stringed violins and, the most noteworthy instrument of them all, a monochord with a single string which can create wonderful tune. The singers not only accompany the orchestra but also converse with puppets, especially with the humorous and intelligent puppet Uncle Tễu which functions as the master of ceremonies. The show is split into around 12 acts, each telling a separate story.

Water Puppet Show (141)

As in other traditional Vietnamese performing arts such as chèo (popular opera), tung (classical opera) and ci lương (renovated opera), the program started with a boisterous music composition to attract attention and create a joyful atmosphere.  The colorful puppets danced and performed numerous interesting items on the shimmering water surface of the water stage in the theater, accompanied by animated music and singing. They even performed acrobatics, spectacular acts which cannot be done by modern robots. We saw no puppeteer, no machines, instruments or controlling strings and poles. By grandson Kyle was spellbound by the performance.

Water Puppet Show (146)

A lot of the scenes were easy to understand, even for non-Vietnamese speakers like me, but there were scenes that were quite hard to follow.  Sometimes, an entire act finished and I only had only a slight idea of what happened. I can understand why some people would dislike the show. However, this traditional but highly developed Vietnamese art form, handed down for nearly 1,000 years, is full of joy, lighting and colors, myriad charms and shocking surprises and is enjoyable to watch.  Watching it, we immediately experienced the boisterous and joyful atmosphere of a real folk festival. The jubilant and sweet puppets particularly enchanted us with their hilarious games. This is the power which can only be found in a water puppet.

The puppeteers

The puppeteers

Though we can watch the water puppet show on VCDs, DVDs, television programs or on YouTube, none of these can replace the real live performance in which we sat near a sparkling water surface. The handling of the water puppets was ingenious and the puppet’s voice actors are truly skilled and multi-talented.  Both contributed to a fascinating performance. Most shows do get pretty full so, to get the best seats in the house, show up early. To be less confused, read the pamphlet which is distributed outside the theater.  It briefly explains what each scene is about.

Grace, Kyle, Cheska and Jandy

Grace, Kyle, Cheska and Jandy

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater: 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St., Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Tel: +84 8 3930 2196(booking office) and (84) 0913874808.  Email: nhahatrongvang@gmail.com. Website: www.goldendragontheatre.com. Daytime performances are by special arrangement.

Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh Bus Trip

After our Huyen Sy Church visit, we returned to Elios Hotel to pick up our luggage. The previous day, Violet was able to book all of us on  an airconditioned Sorya 168 Bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh for US$9 each. The travel agency where we booked our bus was along Pham Ngu Lao St. where our hotel was located and it was just a short walk away.  Upon arrival, we were all picked up by a van and brought to our waiting Hyundai bus.

Rural scene along the route

Rural scene along the route

We all occupied a row of reclinable, side-by-side bucket seats with armrests, stored our hand carried bags at overhead racks and our large luggage at the back (though there was a huge baggage storage compartment at the side of the bus, below the passenger deck).

Moc Bai Border Gate (Vietnam)

Moc Bai Border Gate (Vietnam)

Our bus left the station by 12 noon.  We were in for a long 285-km. (177 mi.)/6-7-hr. trip.   As soon as we left, the bus steward started collecting our passports as well as of other passengers bound for Phnom Penh. Naturally, I did not like this idea of giving away our passports to a stranger but looking around, I noticed that this was normal and routine. The steward was to hold on to it within the duration of the trip up to the Vietnam-Cambodia border where he will hand these over to the Vietnamese immigration officer for the stamping of the exit date.

Bavet Border Gate (Cambodia)

Bavet Border Gate (Cambodia)

After a 2.5 hour (70 km.) trip along the National Highway 22 (the Vietnam section of the Trans-Asia Highway) through Cu Chi, we reached the Moc Bai border gate in Tây Ninh Province and we all got off from the bus and entered a building where the Vietnam immigration passport checkpoint is located.  Here, our passports were stamped with the exit date. We didn’t wait a long time.

Khai-Nam

Khai-Nam

Caramelized pork and eggs.

Caramelized pork and eggs.

Fried chicken rice

Fried chicken rice

From the Moc Bai border gate, we again boarded our bus and, upon reaching the Cambodian border, alighted again upon reaching the Bavet border gate at  Svay Rieng. Bavet is one of the “special economic zones” (SEZ) of Cambodia, with established textile industries, bicycles factories plus 10 to 12 big and small casinos (Bao Mai Casino,  Roxy Casino, Crown Bavet Casino, Le Macau Casino-Hotel, Titan King Casino, etc.) attended by Vietnamese.

The small  Bao Mai Casino & Roxy Casino ,,,,

The small Bao Mai Casino & Roxy Casino ,,,,

....... and the  huge Titan King Casino

……. and the huge Titan King Casino

After clearing with Cambodia immigration, we again boarded our bus and traveled 1 or 2 kms. before making a 30-min. stopover for a late lunch at a cafeteria called Khai-nam.  A meal here costs US$2 (yes they accept US dollars as well as the Vietnamese dong and Cambodian riel).  Back at our bus, our passports were finally returned to us by the steward.

Roll-On Roll-Off ferry

Roll-On Roll-Off ferry

Enjoying the ferry crossing

Enjoying the ferry crossing

We still had a long 170-km. drive to get to Phnom Penh and the trip was uneventful save for the occasional downpour and  the roll-on-roll-off ferry crossing at Neak Loeung where our bus crossed the Mekong River. As the traffic was flowing smoothly, our bus got to board the ferry in less than 15 minutes.  We were lucky as there are times when there are many vehicles wanting to cross the river and a traffic jam occurs. The wait can sometimes stretch up to 2 hours. The crossing itself took less than 10 minutes.

Neak Loeung Ferry Terminal

Neak Loeung Ferry Terminal

The unfinished Neak Loeung Bridge

The unfinished Neak Loeung Bridge

Currently, a 2-km.long , Japan-funded bridge, connecting the National Rd. 1, near Neang Lerg, is being built and is slated to be finished by 2015, making it the longest bridge in Cambodia.  We arrived at Phnom Penh’s Central Market by 6 PM.  Here, we hired a tuk tuk (a motorcycle with an open cabin, suspended upon the rear fork, with an in-line seat on each side), at US$1 per pax, to take us to Elite Boutique Hotel

 

Huyen Sy Church (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Huyen Sy Church

Huyen Sy Church

Violet, Osang, Jandy and I still had the whole morning free prior to our departure, via aircon bus, from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, so we decided to walk over to nearby Huyen Sy Church, the oldest and one of the four biggest Catholic churches in the city (it is the second largest).  Widely regarded as one of the most beautiful churches in the city, it imitates the style of many European cathedrals and small churches in France and I was looking forward to add this to my Saigon photo collection.

Church interior

Church interior

The church, sometimes known as Nhà thờ Chợ Đũi (Đũi Market Church) because it was located in Chợ Đũi parish, was designed by Fr. Charles Boutier (1845-1927), an architect of considerable merit who had previously designed the Thủ Đức Church and redesigned the Sisters of Saint Paul de Chartres’ École de Sainte-Enfance complex (after its original wooden buildings had been damaged by termites).

The vaulted ceiling of the nave

The vaulted ceiling of the nave

Constructed from 1902 to 1905, it was named after Huyen Sy (1841-1900, real name Philippe Lê Phát Ðạt), the richest man in Saigon at that time and grandfather of Queen Nam Phuong (Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan), first and primary wife of King Bảo Đại, Vietnam’s last king.

Italian stained glass windows

Italian stained glass windows

Funder of the church’s construction (he donated one seventh of his family inheritance to build the church and also contributed the land on which it sits), he also funded the construction of the churches in Chí Hoà and Thủ Đức.  He died before the building was completed. His son Denis Lê Phát An later built the extraordinary Byzantine-style church in Hạnh Thông Tây.

The high altar

The high altar

This 40 m. long by 18 m. wide, Gothic-style church has Romanesque decorative elements and a vaulted nave flanked by vaulted aisles decorated in pastel green and white.  Off the nave, in the axial Huyện Sỹ memorial chapel immediately behind the chancel, are the tombs of Huyen Sy and his wife Huỳnh Thị Tài (1845-1920). Elaborately carved from the finest marble, the tombs feature full-length effigies of the couple. Busts of Huyện Sỹ and Huỳnh Thị Tài are also installed on the walls.

Chapel dedicated  to St. Joseph

Chapel dedicated to St. Joseph

Aside from using brick, this is also one or a few churches that used Bien Hoa granite, a kind of stone that shows wealth but is very hard to carve patterns.  It was used in the façade, base, the main columns and decorative work.The high ceiling, with its vertical emphasis, is defined by an ogival arch that is supported by pillars made from Bien Hoa granite.

Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary

Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary

Its Italian stained glass windows, which keeps out as much of the tropical heat as possible, are adorned with images of Bible stories while, along the walls, are statues of Biblical and Vietnamese saints and the 14 Stations of the Cross. On either side of the transept are small chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Joseph.

Statue of St. Matthieu Le Van Gam

Statue of St. Matthieu Le Van Gam

The chancel features a richly-decorated marble high altar standing on an open platform and featuring ornate gilding work and exquisitely-carved bas-reliefs of Biblical scenes, including the Last Supper and Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel.

Statue of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus

Statue of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus

The church is dedicated to St. Philip the Apostle (a statue of St Philip stands at the main entrance).  Immediately in front of the church stands a statue of St. Matthêu Lê Văn Gẫm (Lê Văn Bôi, 1813-1847), a Vietnamese priest and merchant from Biên Hòa Province who was captured and beheaded, for his Catholic missionary activities, in the Chợ Đũi area on the orders of the Nguyễn Dynasty court. In 1900, he was beatified by Pope Leo XIII and, every year on May 11, the date of his execution, a festival of remembrance is held at the church.

The popular Ave Maria prayer spot

The popular Ave Maria prayer spot

The grounds also contain numerous other shrines, including a statue to St Joseph and a Mountain of Our Lady, built in 1960. A Chapel of Rest has recently been added. On numerous occasions, the church has been refurbished, most recently from 2007 to 2009. Above the front vestibule is a 57 m. high bell tower which contains 4 bells cast in France in 1905.

The Chapel of Rest

The Chapel of Rest

The two largest bells (diameter 1.05 m.) were presented to the church by Jean Baptiste Lê Phát Thanh, one of Huyện Sỹ’s sons, and his wife Anna Đỗ Thị Thao. To honor their contribution to the Huyện Sỹ Church, their busts are also displayed in the memorial chapel behind the chancel. The donor of the two smaller bells (diameter 0.95 m.) is not known.

The church's 3 spires

The church’s 3 spires

This century-old, grand and imposing church, a tranquil haven with a warm and awe-inspiring interior, is popular among Vietnamese Catholics who come to Huyen Sy to pray and light incense and votive candles.  On the church grounds is a peaceful flower garden. 

Votive offerings

Votive offerings

Huyen Sy Church: 1 Ton That Tung Road (formerly Rue Frère Guilleraut) corner Nguyễn Trãi St. (formerly Rue Frère Louis), , District 1,  Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Tel: 84 (0) 8 3833 0820 and 84 (0) 8 3925 5806. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8-11 AM and  2-4:30PM.

Half-Day Cu Chi Tunnel Tour (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

No visit to Ho Chi Minh City is complete without a visit to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels and, during our walking tour of the French Quarter, Osang, Violet, Jandy and I visited the Saigon Tourist Office to book a half-day afternoon guided tour.  After lunch at the Propaganda Cafe, we promptly returned to the tourist office by 1 PM where we were to be picked up by our tour bus.

The video documentary

The video documentary

This 75-mile (121 km.) long complex of tunnels has been preserved by the Vietnamese government and turned into a war memorial park with two different tunnel display sites open to visitors – Ben Dinh, closer to Saigon, and Ben Duoc (15 kms. further) which contains part of the original tunnel system. We were to visit the former, the site where most group tours go. As such, it can be extremely crowded.

Exhibit of Vietnam-era weapons

Exhibit of Vietnam-era weapons

Our 40-km. trip to Ben Dinh took us 1.5 hours. There are a number of stalls selling food and drinks near the entrance. Our Cu Chi tunnel tour started at a classroom-style hut with a wall chart and a cross-section of the tunnels.  Here, we were shown an introductory black and white, Russian-made video detailing the tunnel’s long 25-year construction as well as live footage of American planes dousing the land with Agent Orange and destroying it with bombs.

A B-52 bomb crater

A B-52 bomb crater

Then, Mr. Do Thanh Ngan, our local English-speaking guide took us on a fascinating tour of the Cu Chi tunnels along a well defined walking track, with lots of interesting things to see spaced at regular intervals, that loops around the area. Along the way, we walked past huge, mind-boggling hollow basins of earth, actually bomb craters that are evidence of the heavy B-52 bombing campaigns in the region during the Vietnam War.

Entrance to the Ham Hoi Truong (meeting room)

Entrance to the Ham Hoi Truong (meeting room)

During the Vietnam War, the tunnel system was a safe haven for thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and it was virtually an underground city with dwelling houses, schools, hospitals and factories. Through lots of compelling photos and personal effects left behind, we learned more about the conditions these people lived in, the hardships they faced, and the amazing ingenuity employed to maintain life in the tunnels.  We also saw examples of how people lived and what they ate.

Jandy trying out the hidden tunnel entrance

Jandy trying out the hidden tunnel entrance

At one seemingly empty area, our guide pointed to us a small, hidden tunnel entrance just beneath our feet.  A Vietnamese soldier first demonstrated to us how to enter and exit the tunnel, closing the entrance with a 2 x 1.5-ft. manhole cover.  A tourist also successfully tried her hand in doing so, followed by Jandy.

An array of terrifying but lethal booby traps

An array of terrifying but lethal booby traps

Chong bo (door trap)

Chong bo (door trap): heavily spiked wooden cross sections suspended above a door or opening via a trip wire.  When the wire is tripped, the trap swings down and impales the victim

A see-saw trap

A see-saw trap with sharp punji sticks at the bottom of the pit

Also on display were the different types of lethally terrifying but clever booby traps using punji sticks, ironically made from the scrap metal of the American’s artillery, bomb and rocket shells, which were used on American soldiers – chong bat (swinging up trap), chong can coi (see-saw trap), chong canh cua (window trap), chong ghe xep (folding chair trap), chong tru quay (rolling trap), chong-hom (fish trap), chong bo (door trap) and hong tho (sticking trap).

Chimneys

Tiny chimneys that disperses smoke from the kitchen

Tiny ventilation shafts

Tiny ventilation shafts

We also wandered past tiny little chimneys in the ground that dispersed smoke from the underground hoang cam kitchens, tiny ventilation shafts and climbed up what remained of a U.S. army M-41 tank destroyed by a delay mine in 1970.  Underground conference rooms (ham hoi truong), where campaigns such as the Tet Offensive were planned in 1968, have also been restored.   There were also some mannequins re-enacting soldiers in different settings (an army camp, military workshop, etc.).

The destroyed American M-41 tank

The destroyed American M-41 light tank

Jandy and I, as well as other guests, were given the opportunity to do a tough crawl through a 100 m. long section of the “touristed” tunnels, never part of the real network, which have been specially created and enlarged (around 50%) and widened so that the larger Western tourists can now fit through.  Though low powered lights have been installed to make traveling through them easier, it is still not recommended for the claustrophobic.

The tunnel entrance

The tunnel entrance

The tunnel we entered

The tunnel we entered

Violet tried but gave up while Osang remained above ground.  The crawl space was so small and tight that I found it impossible to believe that anyone ever survived here before the tunnel was enlarged. For those who may not want to, or may not be able to continue, exit points were located at the 20 m., 40m., 60m. and 80 m. marks. Jandy and I exited after 20 m.  This was the highlight of our tour

Cong binh xuong (military workshop)

Cong binh xuong (military workshop)

A sandal-making factory

A sandal-making factory

Other above-ground attractions include numerous souvenir shops, at the end of the walking track, some focusing on war memorabilia as well as the traditional Vietnamese souvenirs which could be found elsewhere.  Nearby is a shooting range where visitors can play real war games by firing a variety of authentic Vietnam-era assault weapons such as the K-54 pistol, the M-16 rifle, AK-47, M1 carbine, M1 Garand, Russian SKS and the M-30 and M-60 light machine guns.

Jandy at one of the souvenir shops

Jandy at one of the souvenir shops

Firing range rates

Firing range rates

Sounds like great fun but I cannot help but put off from my mind what these “toys” were really designed for – killing. Besides firing a weapon costs 20,000 VND/bullet (US$0.95) for the K-54 pistol all the way up to 40,000 VND/bullet (US$1.88) for AK-47 and M-60 machine gun, and you have to buy at least 10 bullets (you can, however, share these with someone else).

Jandy, Violet and Osang posing with some manikins

Jandy, Violet and Osang posing with a pair of mannequins